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Frankenstorm: Due to Climate Change?

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

As I write these words my city is feeling the first impact of “Frankenstorm” -- an unprecedented event in which two cold storm systems will collide with Hurricane Sandy, producing storm and tidal surge events extending over 1,000 miles of U.S. and Canadian territory. Meteorological modelers and politicians have been using terms like “first in history,” “unprecedented,” “impossible to forecast,” and “historic for more than 1000 years,” to describe this weather event.

I am writing quickly, and my prose may be less-than-perfect, because I fear we will soon lose electricity.

This morning at high tide I witnessed the New York Harbor and East River rising far higher than occurred during the peak of last year’s Hurricane Irene event, swallowing up the VIP heliport used by President Obama, parts of the city’s FDR Highway, and waterfront parks. As the tide receded, storm drains were so backed up that they were spouting water into the air like mini-geysers. The worst is still hours away: a moment when the Full Moon will drag the tide into shore, the storm will make landfall just south of New York City, pummeling New Jersey and pushing the tidal surge, a record high pressure area capping a region of roughly one third of continental U.S. will hold the so-called “cork effect,” preventing release of the storms’ energies, and a Northeaster from Canada will plow into the front of the oncoming hurricane, dropping as much as 50 inches of snow on West Virginia, alone.

From my rain- and wind-battered perch atop the tallest residential building on the Brooklyn waterfront I have witnessed a series of record-breaking weather events over the last two years. The day after Christmas 2010 we were slammed by a blizzard that blew snow in gusts of 75 mph, propelling flakes of ice through my windowpanes, leaving small piles of snow inside my home. Hurricane Irene hit New York last September at wind speeds of “only” 80 mph at ground level, qualifying just as a tropical storm, but for those of us residing above the 20th story in New York’s towers the impact was up to 95 mph, hurricane force, bashing with the sound of a roaring locomotive.

As the sea level now rises, surging and swallowing shorelines, and rain pounds nearly the entire eastern coast of the United States, Brooklynites mumble, “Yeah, it’s climate change. The new normal.”

Every political leader, city planner, healthcare official and first responder justifiably asks whether these historic weather events are the result of rising CO2 levels in our atmosphere, resulting in climate extremes. For global health actors this is a critical question, as normalization of major weather disasters and tidal surges would signal permanent need for expanded emergency response and trauma care capacity, preparedness for mass evacuation events and other extreme weather associated health issues.

Key Evidence of Warming of the Planet

Billionaire brothers Charles and Daniel Koch have long funded right-wing causes and candidates, and are major backers of Gov. Mitt Romney’s run for the Presidency. Since 1997 the Koch Brothers have reportedly put more than $61 million into climate skeptic efforts, backing writings and research that deny any climate change is underway, and refuting causal links to fossil fuel burning. (The Koch Brothers are in the petrochemicals business.) Among the recipients of Koch research funds is climate change denier, physicist Richard A. Muller of the University of California-Berkeley. Muller led the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Research Project, which used 1.6 billion surface temperature measurements, dating from 1753 to the present, to find anomalies – either extreme heat, or extreme cold, given the relevant season of measurement. Muller’s intention, backed by Koch money, was to demonstrate that nothing untoward was occurring with the world climate – fluctuations today, they hypothesized, are no greater than those seen two centuries ago.

Muller’s data revealed the opposite, and the time-lapse recapitulation of 1.6 billion data points is required viewing for all my blog readers. It clearly demonstrates that serious anomalies tracked with the Industrial Revolution, surfacing first in the UK, American northeast and then-Prussia, and expanding across the northern hemisphere through the 18th and early 19th Centuries. With colonialism, and related industrialization, weather anomalies appeared in southern India, Australia, Brazil and other pockets of the southern hemisphere by the late 19th Century. Going into the 20th Century “anomalies” become annual routines in the north, and spread ever-wider in the south. After WWII heat anomalies appear in Antarctica and across sub-Saharan Africa.

And then catastrophe strikes: Suddenly the heat anomalies spike, beginning in the year 2000, and the trend – the slope of the graph, if you will – soar at a nearly 90 degree angle.

The findings turned Muller around: he now acknowledges that climate change is, indeed, unfolding and is driven by fossil fuel use.

An international team of climate scientists recently combined historical records of Atlantic hurricanes and cyclones (1923-2008), showing a dramatic increase in their severity began to be apparent in 1980, skyrocketing in frequency since 2000.

The Munich Re insurance firm has put its actuarial attention to storm analysis, with an eye to projecting indemnification costs into the future. Two weeks ago they released an alarming analysis that shows severe weather events are escalating at a staggering pace, especially over North America. “Climate change is already contributing to the deaths of nearly 400,000 people a year and costing the world more than $1.2 trillion, wiping 1.6% annually from global GDP,” a Guardian summary of the report says. “The impacts are being felt most keenly in developing countries, according to the research, where damage to agricultural production from extreme weather linked to climate change is contributing to deaths from malnutrition, poverty and their associated diseases.”

In August an international team warned that floods were becoming both larger and more frequent.

(As I write these words a howl of wind pierces my home, rain is slamming windows so hard that water is seeping in rivulets through the panes and inside my home, and I can feel buffeting of wind gusts – all happening while the brunt of the storm is still three or four hours away.)

This summer North America experienced record heat waves, which proved devastating for wheat and corn harvests, caused massive forest and land fires, and escalated the numbers of heat wave deaths. A Harvard School of Public Health study used Medicare records to examine the impact of heat waves on the health of elderly populations. They found that in the U.S., alone, an additional 10,000 seniors with underlying chronic diseases will die for every 1 degree C increase in average temperature during summer months.

As heat events spread around the world this summer, with the Indian subcontinent monsoons delayed – even absent in drought-stricken areas of India and Pakistan – evidence pointed to climate change. James Hansen – the NASA top planetary climate scientist who way back in the 1980s warned that inadequate heat was escaping Earth – stepped into the political fray. His team found strong evidence linking the rising heat trends of the summer of 2012 to elevated CO2 emissions, forming a gaseous sheath around the planet that prevents refraction of energy from the Sun.

The Great Arctic and Glacial Melts

Perhaps the biggest shocker came this summer with evidence of a massive melt event in the Arctic – overall, the Arctic sea and land ice melted back to leave only 25% of the normal, pre-industrialization ice load. Greenland’s ice all but disappeared entirely. And glaciers all over the world – especially in the Himalayas – shed massive quantities of their ancient frozen waters. These melts have had two immediate effects: First, the planet’s albedo impact is lost, as the amount of white, refractive surface covering lands and seas diminishes. This means less of the Sun’s energy bounces off white ice cover, returning to the atmosphere.

The second big impact is an increase in the amount of water in the seas – acidic water. Very salty water is heavy, and less likely to evaporate. Fresh water is more labile, and therefore more likely to contribute to planetary precipitation. Sea levels are rising. And the changing chemistry of the seas is transforming the biota of the oceans, particularly at the microbial level.

Since 1850 global average surface temperature has increased from 13.5 degrees C to 14.5 degrees in 2000. Average sea level rose 200 mm between 1870-2000. And the amount of snow cover on North America, producing the protective albedo effect, fell from a 1955 level of 38 million square kilometers in winter to just 34 million KM/squared by 2000.

It is tempting to conclude that the net impact is: (1.) more water, (2.) which is warmed by lack of albedo refraction, and (3.) more likely to precipitate due to rising acidity, causing (4.) a dramatic increase in wind and water events due to a wetter, more turbulent lower Earth atmosphere.

In other words, expect more severe weather. A UN study compared trends over time of earthquake and storm reporting, showing that despite some improvements in reporting networks for natural disasters, the uptick in storm catastrophes FAR exceeds anything seen with non-weather events. In 1900 some 10 earthquakes were reported worldwide: with better surveillance for detection of low Richter tremors that number rose to 48 in 2000. In contrast, weather disasters were reported at a rate of less than 40/year from 1900 to 1970, then surged dramatically, reaching 250/year in 1985 and 425 in 1999.

Political Impact

My brother, Banning Garrett, runs the Global Trends program at the Atlantic Council. He notes, “It is eerie that the global trends 2025 report had as one of its scenarios (p. 57 -59) an ‘October Surprise’ of a major climate change-induced hurricane hitting New York!”

Eerie, indeed: it’s Frankenstorm Halloween eerie.

Last month climate experts warned that New York City was moving far too slowly in its preparations for climate change events. Predictably, critics will be shouting louder after Frankenstorm. A climate projection map shows New York City will be devoured by rising seas, and the map uncannily demonstrates the areas that are today threatened by the Frankenstorm tidal surge.

The increase in climate disasters may persuade world leaders that climate change can no longer be ignored. But what will they do? Every aspect of climate treaty negotiation over the last few years has failed, largely thanks to the negotiating positions of the United States and China, the world’s two top CO2 emitters. One possible explanation for the surge in all climate-change relevant markers (sea level, Arctic melt, catastrophic weather events, surface temperature, sea temperature) is China, and its 10 gigaton underestimate of annual CO2 it is spewing into the atmosphere.

As for the U.S. elections, all campaigning is now on hold, and speculation abounds regarding how this catastrophe will effect voting. The election is so close that absolutely anything could tip the balance. If the storm demonstrates anything, politically, it is that the people need government in times of crisis. The politics of anti-governmentalism, as espoused by the Republican Party this year, could suffer as the toll of storm damage, fatalities and emergency neediness rises.

I am going to send this now. It is 4:30 pm in New York. The rain is sheeting so hard against my windows that looking out feels like I’m on the wrong end of aquarium glass. Wind gusts are making my tower move, producing a vague sense of sea sickness. As I look at the Brooklyn Bridge I fear the renovation construction rigs hanging beneath its mile-and-a-half span will blow off, sending sheets of corrugated steel flying. Trees on the river front are bent so hard in the wind that the tops seem to touch the ground. And the worst of this is still three to four hours away.

Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as climate change.

For the highly motivated, here is a terrific reading list cribbed from Ramez Naam:

References and Further Reading

Information about the state of the Arctic ice can be retrieved from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) at http://nsidc.org/. In particular, for data on the coverage of Arctic ice, I’ve relied on NSIDC’s Sea Ice Index (http://nsidc.org/data/seaice_index/archives/index.html).

Sea ice volume data comes from the Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System (PIOMAS) operated by the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington. You can access that data here:http://psc.apl.washington.edu/wordpress/research/projects/projections-of-an-ice-diminished-arctic-ocean/data-piomas/

The finding that human activity is responsible for roughly 60% of the Arctic ice melt from 1979 – 2011 is from: Stroeve, J. C., V. Kattsov, A. Barrett, M. Serreze, T. Pavlova, M. Holland, and W. N. Meier (2012), Trends in Arctic sea ice extent from CMIP5, CMIP3 and observations, Geophys. Res. Lett., 39, L16502, doi:10.1029/2012GL052676. You can find that paper here.

Long term reconstructions of Arctic ice coverage for the 1,450 years are from: Christophe Kinnard, Christian M. Zdanowicz, David A. Fisher, Elisabeth Isaksson, Anne de Vernal & Lonnie G. Thompson, Reconstructed changes in Arctic sea ice over the past 1,450 years, Nature 479, 509–512 (24 November 2011) doi:10.1038/nature10581. You can find that paper here.

Note that the graphic showing that trend is mine, and combines data from Kinnard’s study with contemporary ice coverage data from NSIDC. Any error there is mine.

Peter Wadhams’ observations about the heating effect of a darkening Arctic have been repeated widely in the press. I know of no primary source in the literature, but one version of the math can be found in a blog posthere. I find the math in the blog post generally right but wrong in specifics. An easier approach is to take the fraction of the Earth’s surface covered by the Arctic ice cap in the height of summer (about 2% of the planet) and multiply that by the average insolation the region receives (170 – 180 watts / m^2) and then by the plausible change in albedo (perhaps 0.5). That gives a change in the amount of energy captured by the earth – before taking into account clouds and such – of about 1.75 watts / m^2 (averaged across the whole planet). That compares to 1.6 watts / m^2 of heating effect caused by humans via other changes to the earth system. The math is slightly different than Wadhams’, but the answer is roughly the same – a warming effect (a ‘climate forcing’ in the parlance of the field) roughly as large as all current human-caused warming.

On the topic of permafrost, three important papers on the rate of permafrost thaw and the amount of carbon which could be released are Vulnerability of Permafrost Carbon to Climate Change: Implications for the Global Carbon Cycle by Edward Schuur and colleagues, Amount and timing of permafrost carbon release in response to climate warming by Kevin Schaefer and colleagues, and Accelerated Arctic land warming and permafrost degradation during rapid sea ice loss by David Lawrence and colleagues.

On the topic of methane hydrate deposits on the sea floor, a relevant “don’t panic yet” paper is Siberian shelf methane emissions not tied to modern warming by Colin Schultz. A reminder that some periods of the last 10,000 years have been a bit warmer than our present, seemingly without triggering runaway explosive release of Arctic methane, can be found in Ice free Arctic Ocean, an Early Holocene analogue by Svend Hunder. (With the caveat that the planet seems to be well on its way past the high temperature marks of the early Holocene.)

Finally, the last figure in this article is adapted from a key paper by Julienne Stroeve and colleagues titled simply: Arctic sea ice decline: Faster than forecastBecause that paper dates from 2007, I’ve updated the data for actual sea ice melt to bring it up to speed with the events of the subsequent 5 years. I’ve left the IPCC projections alone, though for simplicity I’m displaying only the mean of projections, and not the range. Any error in adapting and updating Stroeve’s figure is mine.